The tragic story of mankind’s second generation unfolds as Cayin and Hevel, the sons of Adam and Chavah, each bring an offering to God. God accepts Hevel and his offering, but rejects Cayin’s efforts.
Unable to accept a divine rejection which he feels is both without reason and unreasonable, a despondent and enraged Cayin murders his brother.
God responds to this horrific act of fratricide by sending Cayin into permanent exile.
A glaring textual omission emerges at the climactic moment of the Cayin and Hevel story. he Torah states: “And Cayin said to Hevel his brother, and it was when they were in the field, and Cayin rose up upon Hevel his brother and killed him.”
What did Cayin say? Why does the Torah introduce a conversation which it then fails to record?
The Rabbis in the Midrash Rabbah suggest three possible conversations which might have led to the fateful physical confrontation between Cayin and Hevel.
1. The brothers determined to divide the world. One took possession of the land, while the other claimed all movable items. As soon as the division took effect, one said to the other ‘you are standing upon my land!’ while the other replied ‘you are wearing my clothes!’ A struggle ensued, and Cayin killed Hevel.
2. Their dispute centered upon the Beit Hamikdash, the Holy Temple (which would be built by the Jewish Nation millennia later). After they divided both the land and the movables equally, Cayin and Hevel both claimed dominion over the Temple; each wanted it built in his domain. A struggle ensued, and Cayin killed Hevel.
3. Cayin and Hevel actually fought over their mother (or alternatively, one of their sisters; a midrash teaches that they were both born with twin sisters).
The Midrash seems to raise more questions than answers.
Can the Rabbis suggest that they know the content of a conversation omitted by the biblical text? Does the Midrash reflect prophetic vision, or were the Rabbis somehow present at the scene of Hevel’s murder?
Further, each of the rabbinic suggestions seems more bizarre than the next. How can we seriously consider, for example, that Cayin and Hevel actually argued about the Temple? The very concept of the Beit Hamikdash would not be introduced into human experience until centuries after their death. Similarly, no clue is found in the Biblical text to support the contention that Cayin and Hevel argued either about material wealth or about a woman.
Simply put, how are we to understand the midrashic approach to the struggle between Cayin and Hevel?
This seemingly strange rabbinic passage actually provides us with a perfect entrÃ©e into the world of midrash.
There is a vast difference between pashut pshat (straightforward explanation of a biblical text) and
midrash (rabbinical exegesis).
When we operate within the world of pshat, we search for the direct meaning of the text before us. In this realm, everything is literal and concrete.
When we enter the world of midrash, however, the rules change completely. Midrashim are vehicles through which the Rabbis, using the Torah text as a point of departure, transmit significant messages and lessons. As such, midrashim are not necessarily meant to be taken literally; nor are they are to be seen as attempts to explain the factual meaning of a specific Torah passage.
By using the vehicle of midrash to convey eternal lessons and values, the Rabbis connect these values to the Torah text itself. They also insure that the lessons will not be lost and will always be perceived as flowing directly from the Torah.
Our task, therefore, when we enter this world, is to discover the global lessons the Rabbis want to convey.
In the midrash before us, they are not simply explaining the story. They see this first violent event in human history as the prototype of physical confrontation across the ages. True to midrashic style, they express significant global observations in concrete, storylike, terms.
Fundamentally, the Rabbis make the following statement here: We were not present when Cayin killed Hevel. We cannot glean any information directly from the biblical text concerning this dispute. Ask us, then, what these brothers were struggling about and we would be forced to suggest one of three options.
Over the course of human history, man has killed his brother for material gain, over religion, and out of lust. All bloodshed and warfare can be traced to these three basic primary sources. We, therefore, are certain that one of these issues served as the basis of the confrontation between Cayin and Hevel at the dawn of human history.
This rabbinic commentary serves as a sobering reminder that humankind has not moved an inch off the killing field of Hevel’s murder. In spite of perceived social progress, nothing has fundamentally changed. The causes of human conflict have remained remarkably constant across the face of time.
This midrashic approach remains sadly relevant, centuries after its authorship.
If the 20th century gave lie to any assumption at all, it was to the assumption that scientific and technological progress automatically would be accompanied by moral advancement. The century which gave us the Shoah reminds us that in many ways we have simply gotten better at killing each other.
So far, as we confront the pandemic of Moslem fundamentalism, the 21st century isn’t looking much better.
As perceptive as this midrash may be, however, it fails to answer the original textual question which we raised. Once again, why doesn’t the Torah tell us what Cayin said to Hevel? Why introduce a conversation, but leave its content unrecorded?
On one level, we could simply answer that God wants us to fill in the blanks. Sometimes, a portion of the Torah is left unfinished in order to make us partners in the text. God challenges us to read into that text the myriad possible lessons that are relevant to our lives.
Had the Torah told us the content of Cayin’s dialogue with Hevel; the questions would not have been asked, no midrash would have been written and a fundamental lesson would have never been conveyed.
There may, however, be an even deeper and more powerful reason for the Torah’s omission here.
It edits out the content of Cayin’s words to Hevel, because God wants us to understand that those words, whatever they might have been, were of no ultimate consequence. Sometimes an act is so depraved that its cause and motivation are unimportant; no valid excuse can be offered.
Perhaps Cayin had justifiable grievances against his brother. We will never know. Cayin loses all claims upon our empathy and understanding the moment he murders his brother. Nothing can explain that heinous act; nothing can justify it.
Once again, the eternal Torah text, this time through omission, delivers a message which is frighteningly applicable to our time. No matter what their cause, acts of terror, mayhem and murder perpetrated against innocent victims are inexcusable. The perpetrators of these crimes, through their very actions, render their own potential grievances irrelevant.
God wants us to know that Cayin said something to Hevel. He also wants to us to know, however, that what Cayin said ultimately doesn’t matter. The text conveys this lesson in the only way that it can. We are told that a conversation took place, but we are not told the content of that conversation.
Sometimes the Torah teaches us, not by what is included in the text, but by what is left out.
Adapted from Unlocking the Torah Text – Breishit (Genesis): An In-depth Journey into the Weekly Parsha,
co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishing House.